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Admissions Director Q&A: Carlson School of Management’s Linh Gilles

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Last month as part of our Real Humans of MBA Admissions Series, we introduced the Clear Admit audience to Linh Gilles, director of admissions and recruiting at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Today, we’re pleased to shed even more light on the admissions process she oversees with a more in-depth interview as part of our Admissions Director Q&A Series.

Gilles has been in admissions at Carlson for the past decade and in the director’s role since 2012. And by virtue of also being a current student in the full-time executive MBA (EMBA) program, she knows the school from the student’s perspective as well.

“I suppose at some point working for an MBA program for 10 years, you do just drink the Kool-Aid,” she says of her decision to pursue her EMBA. But she’s also gathered a decade’s worth of evidence for how transformative the degree can be. “It’s not only about business but also about leadership and management—which have applications for any industry,” she says, including higher education. “We need to meet the objectives and mission of our institution, so I want to strengthen my analytical capabilities and really examine how we can propel our organization into the future for longer-term sustainability.”

In the interview that follows, she shares some of the things that she believes set Carlson apart. She also goes into detail about just how the admissions process unfolds and how to make yours one of the essays she’ll remember for years to come—in a good way. Our thanks to Gilles for taking part!

Admissions Director Q&A: Carlson School of Management’s Linh Gilles

Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Carlson in the coming year?

Carlson School of Management’s Linh Gilles
Carlson Director of Admissions and Recruiting Linh Gilles

Linh Gilles: One thing we have looked at specifically is how to better develop our Industry MBA program for congressional staffers in any of four main industry verticals: finance, tech, energy and healthcare. When you think about the congressional staffers who are working in these fields, they are drafting legislation that has deep implications for business. There is so much understanding that has to happen, which led us to create this unique one-year program, offered primarily online, for current and former congressional staffers.

In addition to coursework on industry-related legislative and policy issues, the program also provides students with the opportunity to work with partner organizations on real-world business problems. Industry MBA students also interact with students in the rest of our MBA programs, which we have found benefits students in those programs as well.

Since the launch of our Industry MBA program, we also have been building out another industry vertical related to agribusiness, which will have a very strong applied economics focus. As it does with healthcare, energy, technology and finance firms, the Carlson School has deep connections with Minnesota-based global agribusiness corporations—such as Land O’ Lakes and Cargill—which made this industry vertical a natural next addition. It’s exciting for us because it helps us further develop our students to be experts within a certain industry.

CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

LG: Although I know everyone talks about experiential learning, we really are exposing our students to very strong practical experiences that allow them to apply what they are learning in their programs in the real world. Our students engage in experiential learning through the Enterprise Program. These are basically consulting programs that operate within the school. Students work on fee-based projects for real organizations. It really is the closest thing our students can get to real-world experience.

There is a little bit of risk in pursuing a full-time MBA, in that you are taking yourself out of the working world. And case-based, theoretical learning only goes so far. It’s not just thinking about what you would do—in our program, you are actually forced to do it. These are real projects and there is a fee, so these organizations have real expectations.

Our students go through the Enterprise Program in multiple iterations. They start their first consulting project in the second semester of year one, which means they have experience under their belts before they start their internships. And then they go back again into another consulting project in the fall semester of their second year. There’s also another experiential learning program—the Carlson Funds Enterprise—that gives students the opportunity to manage more than $35 million in invested assets.

That’s why I really want to emphasize our experiential learning component. Applicants know we offer it, but so many schools tout experiential learning that it makes it really hard to understand what makes our offering different. I think ours is a game changer and part of why students choose Carlson.

CA: Walk us through the life of an application in your office from an operational standpoint. What happens between the time an applicant clicks “submit” and the time the committee offers a final decision (e.g. how many “reads” does it get, how long is each “read,” who reads it, does the committee convene to discuss it as a group, etc.).

LG: I know it can seem so mysterious in some ways. When an application gets submitted into our program, the first thing we do is try to match and verify all of the components. All of our applications are online—the entire process is paperless. So transcripts can be scanned and loaded into the application platform, test scores can be entered online, and one person in our office goes through all the applications and verifies that each of the components is there, that all of the online submissions are readable and that self-reported scores match official scores, etc. If any documentation is missing, we will go back and reach out to the candidates to get it. Then the application gets marked as complete and ready for review.

Since our entire process is virtual, our admissions committee receives a notification when a file is ready for review in our system. All of our readers work in our admissions office—we do not use any students, alumni, or contractors to read applications. We are a pretty small program, and we really pride ourselves on looking for and finding the candidates who are the very best fit.

There are two stages in which an application will then be reviewed, and the applications populate a queue in our system. The first two reads are performed by admissions committee members, and then every application comes to me. We require three reads on an application with a unanimous decision for admit, deny or waitlist based on academic strength and capabilities, professional experience, and overall fit with the program.

If there isn’t a unanimous decision, the file gets flagged for a second review. We don’t ask for letters of recommendation—instead we ask for references, much as a potential employer would. We switched from letters of recommendation to references because many of the letters we received in the past were pretty generic and weren’t offering the level of depth that we wanted. For some candidates, we’ll want more details from a professional standpoint than we get in the application, in which case we will mark the file for a reference check. Generally, it will just be one reference, although sometimes it is more than one.

We employ graduate assistants to reach out to references to ask for more information and to probe more deeply into the attributes and merits a candidate would bring to our program. When we are checking references, we would prefer a conversation, but we do also have a form referrers can complete. In the cases where we are looking for additional information and decide we do need to reach out to a reference, once that information is gathered the file will then go through the next pass for an admissions decision.

I also screen all admissions decisions to scan for anomalies. Maybe a file got three denies but something about the candidate really stood out. I will quick screen through them with our admissions manager before we send out a final decision. If there isn’t a unanimous decision at this stage, we might also mark the file for a second review.

In addition to the admissions committee, we will sometimes ask our Enterprise Program directors to review an application. Each of our enterprise programs is managed by a professional director, and they have such strong interactions with our students that they have a very high level of engagement in this decision-making process. This is true of members of our career center as well. They are also on the secondary review committee.

The application of anyone marked for a secondary review will be added to the queue for another virtual read. Sometimes it’s not because there are major weaknesses. Sometimes a candidate will have a stated career goal that isn’t a good fit. If a candidate says he or she is interested in a career path in an industry where we don’t have the relationships with recruiters—or is looking to make a major career shift—we always consider how well positioned we are as a program to help meet those goals. For the second read we are also looking for three unanimous votes, but once they have all been read we also meet as a committee. How often we meet depends on how many people we have for secondary reviews, but it is at least once per round if not more. These committee meetings are scheduled for at least an hour, but it usually takes longer than that because we have really robust conversation.

We want to be sure that not only are we admitting people who will find success in the program but also that we are positioning the students to meet their goals. We don’t want to admit them and have them dissatisfied with their experience. Because we do this two-tiered process, our timeline at max is two months—which is to say the time between the posted deadline and when a candidate will be guaranteed an admissions decision is two months.

CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? One key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write them?

LG: For our application we have one required personal statement and then an optional statement. They both should be fairly succinct. Very similar to the references, we treat our application much more like a job application. We are putting the responsibility on the candidate to decide what it is important for our committee to know. And we are putting pressure on a candidate to do that within a limited space and number of statements. We have toyed with a lot of creative application essays, but what we really need to know is why are they interested in an MBA, why now, what are their short- and long-term career goals, and what is the unique contribution they will make to the program. Simply put, we want to know their motivations for pursuing an MBA program and why they see that as a good fit with our program. It’s very direct. There is also room for students to bring in their own personality, but we are looking to see how students can authentically and directly answer that question.

It’s pretty darn hard to do. Can students really answer that question or are they beating around the bush? That is an indication of self-awareness for us. How are students connecting the dots between their past and current experiences to what they want to do with the MBA? That means being able to draw on the strengths and accomplishments that have taken them this far and explain how they will leverage the MBA to help them take the next step in their career.

The other part that sometimes is missed is how important their research on an institution is. Because ours is a small program, we really want a good fit. Candidates have to know enough about the program to imagine themselves here. That requires more digging than just what you can read online—where you will get generic answers that can be applied to any MBA program.

Candidates need to get to the nuanced parts of how our program is different. They need then to figure out how to take advantage of that to leverage it and apply it to what they want to do. Candidates will want to show who they have talked to and what types of organizations they imagine themselves in and why that is important. Bringing that into your essay or statement is going to be really critical—and doing so takes time, dedication, and energy.

Beyond that, I would advise making sure that grammatical and spelling errors have all been taken care of, that you have really done your due diligence, and that you are  submitting the right application to the right program. Every year we have an application come in with another school’s name in it.

How many essays would you wager you’ve read in your tenure at Carlson? What percentage of those essays do you remember now? What about those most memorable essays made them so?

LG: I am pulling up a calculator here. I think at least 10,000 and likely more. As for how many I truly, truly remember? I have a really bizarre memory, and I often can pull up random facts when a candidate comes in. I think I can remember at least something from about 50 percent of the applications I have read. But of those applications—in terms of essays that linger behind for the long term, I would say it is more like one percent. I think there are just some remarkable stories—especially when students can not only really directly answer why they want to do the MBA program but also then connect it to a major accomplishment or obstacle they can overcome.

It’s always great when they humanize it. Even though you are applying to a major institution, we really want to see that humanizing factor—that human element—coming through. There are stories that students can really bring to life, and those are the ones that really stand out and stick in my mind. Maybe there were pivotal moments in their own personal experience that gave them the drive. Sometimes it will be something that really tugged on my heart strings. I find myself saying, “Yes, this candidate has to do an MBA program. It would be a mistake if they don’t continue down this path. They are going to do such great things.”